African congress

From surrogate birth to homosexual weddings, every generation has its front-lines. In the Britain of the Fifties, it was interracial relationships. Roy Kerridge recalls the mysterious `African League'
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Although I am very much afraid of Virginia Woolf, I listened to a radio programme about the Bloomsbury Set the other day, and they reminded me of something. When my mother was a sixth-former in the 1930s, the teachers seemed to live and breathe the Bloomsbury Set. Scores of people failed their English exams because all they had learned was the Bloomsbury Set and the examiners wanted Shakespeare. The Bloomsbury Set meant nothing to me, yet something about their antics, as described on the radio, seemed familiar.

Of course! All those irregular liaisons, the high-minded pursuit of unusual sex lives, even the literature, reminded me of the very Set I had grown up in - the African League! My stepfather, a West African, had been the secretary. Islington, where we lived, seemed, in the 1950s, to be the furthest point of the East End. Cable Street, where most Africans in London then lived, was the mystic heartland whose veins stretched Islingtonwards.

People who write about "the forerunners" and the "birth of the black community" don't seem to realise that the Africans who came to London in the early Fifties were nearly all men. Their wives and girlfriends were usually white, English and acquired in London.

For some reason, members of the highly political African League (motto: Freedom for Africa) had a peculiar attitude to wives. Many League households (or one-room-and-sink-on-the-landing-holds) consisted of husband, wife and husband's best friend. The wife was shared between the two men in a stolid, almost passionless fashion that sometimes led to violence, none the less. Occasionally, a white man made up a fourth party, as boyfriend of husband or best friend or both. Usually, these boyfriends were jealous of the wife and tended to make trouble. Literature was represented by the League newspaper, the African Voice.

Prominent members of the African League sometimes had two or more wives in different premises. It was easy for the men, who spoke African languages or rapid "pidgin", to keep secrets from the middle-class English women. Charges of bigamy could not be pressed because no one ever married anyone legally. White girls would all be told, "We are married by African tradition", and would not feel in the least like mere girlfriends or common-law spouses. Whenever I see the words "African tradition", I smile to myself.

To add to the amazing resemblances to the Bloomsbury Set, we even had an African League member named Keynes. One day, one of the League members fell ill, and his wife sought the advice of Mr Keynes. Although not an economist, this Keynes lived in an economic style, on the usual dark landing. Embarrassed, he listened as the wife spoke urgently of her ailing husband, Tunde. A vinegary girl who sat next to Keynes suddenly burst out, "Why are you so interested in Tunde?"

"Why, he's my husband!"

"What! Tunde's my husband! How dare you!"

The one-sided row that followed (since the first wife fainted) may have been bizarre, even by Bloomsbury standards, since both Keynes and Tunde's outraged second wife were naked and in bed together at the time. Of such stuff great literature may be made, but, unfortunately, not a single copy of the African Voice survives. Tunde recovered, incidentally.

At the Cable Street end of our 1950s Bloomsbury lived Mother Brown, a Creole from Sierra Leone, who met runaway girls at railway stations and put them on the streets. Rumour had it that Mother Brown killed her girls' babies. One of her girls, who fell victim to the Cable Street way of life at the age of 12, had a West African boyfriend named Mac. In my stepfather's bachelor days, Mac was his landlord.

It was nerve-racking living in a house owned by Mr Mac, as the landlord would let rooms to everyone who came to the door, take their money, and then move them into a room occupied by another tenant who was out at work. To say that every room was filled would be an understatement. Once, my stepfather came home and had to turn an entire Polish family - mother, father and four children - out of his tiny room. There was a housing shortage, and matters were desperate, though seldom as desperate nationwide as they were in Mr Mac's rooming-house.

None of the rows caused by his housing policy fazed Mr Mac at all. Whenever he met a treble-booked tenant on the doorstep, he would pretend to be another tenant who just looked like Mr Mac. Incomprehensibly deep, rumbling pidgin English usually sent perplexed men, who had paid large deposits, off on their unhappy way.

In one sense, Mr Mac was a pioneer, for he drew National Assistance as a "poor tenant" in addition to collecting rent as a rich landlord. Nowadays, drawing housing benefit to pay rent for a house that you actually own has become an integral part of the nation's economy. Keynes - either Keynes - could hardly have done better.

My stepfather, an idealistic man, later improved his lot, for we lived in two floors of a large Georgian house in Islington. He had been married before, in Nigeria, and a photograph of his first wife reposed on our mantelpiece. She stood in the doorway of a corrugated iron shack, dressed in a robe and head shawl. A slight, pathetic-looking girl, she fell on hard times and sent us a pleading letter: "Must I die?"

Hers was a fate many an African woman fears - she had borne no children. My stepfather returned her to her mother and came to England as a student, secretly afraid that he might be the barren party. This proved not to be the case, for I now have three sisters and two brothers - one of them my "full brother", whom I shall call Michael.

During the best part of my stepfather's lifetime, we knew nothing of his early fears of infertility. He told us of his five sons and three daughters in Nigeria, and described these imaginary children so well that they became almost part of the family. He based his descriptions on his nephew's children, we later discovered. Many was the hour we spent wondering if we would go to live with them or if they would come to live with us.

Michael's education was greatly affected by these phantom children. He passed a scholarship to a prestigious north London school, and had to go there for his interview. None of us realised how important an interview was - we thought it was the written test that mattered. My stepfather helped my mother to fill in a form needed by the school. When it came to "household members", names and ages thereof, he insisted on putting down a row of African names purporting to be those of the imaginary children.

"They are all Michael's true brothers and sisters!" he announced nobly, before writing a list of names beginning with "Mb" and "Ng" and ending in "enga". He posted the letter but never told Michael about the additional relatives. At the school, an intrigued housemaster asked Michael about his unusual brothers and sisters. Finding that the boy apparently didn't know the names of his own closest relatives, the teacher threw him out as an idiot, in the politest possible way.

Michael went to an inferior school, and, like so many other early-leavers at the start of the Sixties, he is now a tax exile and practically a millionaire. With those early Sixties came the independence of almost all Britain's African possessions. The African League disbanded, and our Bloomsbury in Islington faded slowly away. Somehow, the "struggle for freedom" became a "struggle for jobs in new governments". Perhaps that is what it had been all the time. English wives, transformed into West African expat- memsahibs, grew disillusioned. What price Tunde's fine words about the poor, suffering African when Tunde (now in government) regularly kicked his black servants and roared at his wife for speaking to the gardener: "Don't you know that man is an ignorant? He has no education!"

One of the African League members had high hopes of becoming the "next Prime Minister but three" of a country I shall call West Azania. The new ruler of West Azania summoned him, his wife and family, to a grand reception at a West End hotel. This presented a difficulty - the wife and children had long ago escaped from under his roof, and now lived penniless in Surrey. Wild with excitement, he phoned them and beseeched them in an anguished scream to come to the hotel, promising to pay all expenses.

When they arrived, post-haste, in a taxi, the would-be Minister refused to answer their summons to come and pay the cabdriver. After a long time, a friend of the Would-Be appeared in a temper and flung down the exact fare, to the wife's embarrassment and cabbie's dismay.

Once inside, a sumptuous hall full of African seekers for office, an excited African League friend told the Would-Be's wife that the Prime Minister especially wanted to see her, to make her his Chief Adviser. (All African heads of state then had white advisers, who led them a merry dance).

"My wife cannot go, she hasn't eaten!" the Would-Be riposted angrily, motioning his hastily-summoned family to a great pile of ham sandwiches. Eager for office, he ran into the PM's throne room himself. Every other seeker of office had been solemnly handed pounds 500 in notes, for the PM had taken on the gravitas of an African king. Horror of horrors, the poor Would-Be found himself demoted to a Can't-Be, with no job and no money.

Wildly upset, as, in similar circumstances, Lytton Strachey himself might be, the rejected man began to scream and yell. He fell to the floor at his wife's feet, howling, writhing and rolling to and fro across the carpet. Guests looked on in quiet amusement. Bloomsbury's drawing rooms probably saw many such a scene.

One of the more worthy, noble members of our Bloomsbury set was the Hausa intellectual, Aminou Kano, surnamed after his home city, a Muslim citadel in North Nigeria. Aminou Kano made a sensation whenever he went out in Kano by walking arm in arm with his own wife. Of course, members of the original Bloomsbury set would have occasioned much surprise if they had done such a thing, since walking arm in arm with other people's wives was more their style.

Aminou Kano was the only man in our set who believed a marriage should be a partnership of friends, or twin souls. He was a friend of the Ibo novelist of genius, Chinua Achebe, who kept aloof from our lslington Bloomsbury - my stepfather greatly resembled Achebe in looks. Everyone had been talking about the African League dance, so Aminou came to a high-up Leaguer's house, all dressed up and ready in his robes and skull cap.

"My husband's already left," the English wife explained.

"Oh well, when you go, you can show me the way."

"Oh, but I can't go!"

"Nonsense, nonsense"

So off they went. The hall where the dance was held was in Bloomsbury itself. At the door, amidst a blare of high-life music, a League official said "No Europeans!"

"But this is Mr So-and-So's wife! Fetch him!"

Back came the message, "Mr So-and-So says, `No Europeans!"'

The wife tiptoed away and went home, while Aminou Kano raged and shouted, denouncing the African League. Mr So-and-So was with a Japanese woman, it so happened.

What member of the original Bloomsbury Set could have had a better epitaph than the one written by Chinua Achebe for Aminou Kano? "Nigeria will never be the same because Aminou Kano has lived here"

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